At an all-hands meeting earlier this week, I ran a little experiment: I polled the assembled engineers to find out how many of them felt that they had a solid grasp on the workings of our business model. Guess what? Not a lot of hands went up. But if I had turned around and asked the sales teams how familiar they felt with the architecture of our software products, I’d probably gotten a similar result. Same thing for sure had I questioned the marketers about their understanding of our contracts, the support team about our revenue and cost structure, or the CEO about our cloud deployment model.
This is, in principle, not a bad thing. Since the early days of the industrial revolution, the idea of division of labour is what enabled organizations to reach unprecedented levels of scalability. Allowing individuals or teams to focus their attention on a single aspect of a larger value chain makes the problems that each contributor has to deal with a lot more manageable. This reduction in complexity in turn frees up resources which can again be invested into raising the level of excellence in each particular field, thus driving an increase in overall efficiency.
Of course, increasing levels of specialization don’t come for free: Coordination, both on the strategic and operational level, necessitates additional overhead. Processes, handovers, and interfaces have to be established, and the adherence to them has to be ensured through governance and monitoring. Taken to the extreme, departments can even become so specialized that they end up isolated and disconnected from other teams as well as the organization’s larger objectives. Consequently, companies can fall into the local optimization trap: A fallacy in which teams focus so much on getting better and better at what they do that they become blind as to whether their marginal improvements will have any impact on the organization’s overall output at all.
And here’s where my fascination with the product manager role comes in. Apart from all the obvious duties that come with the job, including everything from identifying and sizing up market opportunities to shipping software which creates value both for our customers as well as for our shareholders, a significant portion of our “softer” responsibilities is to create organizational alignment. As PMs, we’re uniquely positioned at this crucial junction between different departments, each of which speak their own language, follow their own rhythms, and pursue their individual objectives. Just as we PMs need to balance the tension that is an inevitable consequence of that diversity of interests, perspectives, and goals, we often also have to act as interpreters between them.
That is, to put it mildly, not always easy. We have to keep the big picture on top of our mind at all times, but simultaneously be ready to go into the weeds with each of the specialists we’re working with. Empathy, of course, is one key skill for that. But it’s also a cognitive challenge to absorb a lot of detail in a short amount of time, and then to sort through and triage what’s essential and what’s not. That requires a certain familiarity with many different domains without getting sucked into the intricacies of each of them. But by training these mental muscles which allow us to oscillate between the concrete and the abstract, to map the detail to the overview, and to distinguish the essence from the fluff, we also can become better communicators ourselves. What else makes a great interpreter, if not their ability to quickly and deeply understand the meaning of something presented in one language, and to replicate the essence of it in another? For me, the constant exposure to a variety of viewpoints, and the never ending need to translate between them, is what makes the product manager role so special and exciting. We’ve thus got a huge opportunity at our hands for fostering the communication and alignment necessary to propel large and complex organizations forward, in the direction of a shared goal.